5 Ways For Leaders To Build Empathy

“Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our true potential.” Dr Jane Goodall.

In this wonderful short video Dr. Goodall considers how empathy for other animals brings us closer to our highest human potential.


It got me thinking about the role empathy plays in potential – not only in relation to other sentient beings, but also in leadership.

One of the best managers I ever worked for had the empathy gene in bucket loads. He had a knack of knowing when one of his team members was in a big black metaphorical hole; nailing and communicating back to us exactly what it felt like to be in the hole, but not jumping in the ‘said’ hole with us, which wouldn’t have helped anyone.

He delivered the powerful combination of not only recognising our feelings, but also accurately sensing what we needed from him (what Daniel Goleman refers to as empathic concern).  As a result, he tended to get the best out of his team, whilst also fostering loyalty, performance and strong relationships. He was ever so clever at picking up on the subtle nuances of team dynamics.

Both research and collective wisdom link emotionally intelligent leaders and stellar results.  And a cornerstone of the emotionally intelligent leader is empathy.

What is empathy?

It’s the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, then using that understanding to guide our actions. That is what makes it different from kindness or pity.

In his Harvard Business Review article, The Focused Leader, Daniel Goleman talks about the three types of empathy:-

Cognitive empathy – knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking.

Emotional empathy – when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.

Empathic concern – we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.

Here are 5 ways to build empathy and improve your leadership skills as a result:

  1. Listen more. Listening with absolute intent and full presence shows others you have their best interests at heart. It therefore helps to build trust and stronger relationships.
  1. Notice the body language and facial expressions in others. Research has proved we communicate more through our body language than the words we speak. Notice what others are saying through means other than their words. The flush in someone’s face in a meeting. Folded arms. A stressed-out look on someone’s face. The energy shift when someone speaks about a topic they are excited about. It’s amazing how much information we can glean if we really look.
  1. Cultivate a non-judgemental curiosity about people. One way to do this is to be aware of (and try to avoid making) generalisations. Become familiar with the immediate biases we make upon meeting someone new.
  2. Seek to find common ground. With your colleagues, teams or stakeholders. This is especially useful in situations where parties are contributing different perspectives.

Challenge your own preconceptions by searching for what you share with people, rather than what divides you.

  1. Experience is the bridge between judgement and compassion.Tweet: Experience is the bridge between judgement and compassion via @suzimcalpine #theleadersdigest http://ctt.ec/i5TyN+  As the Native American proverb states, “walk a mile in another man’s moccasins before you criticise him.”  Cross functional promotion, rotational projects, spending time in our customer or supplier’s shoes? These things help to build empathy.

What tips can you add to the list above, for becoming a more empathetic leader?

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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